Forecast: bright and warm, with clear skies and and song on a gentle breeze.
There's a little box of pine on the Seven-twenty-nine,
Bringing back a lost sheep to the fold;
A strong tenor voice, inflected with a distinct mountain twang, sang out over the green grass.
In the valley there are tears as the train of sorrow nears,
The sun is gone, the world seems dark and cold.
Underneath the solo, a fiddle and a guitar played low, at a leisurely tempo, unwinding the sorrowful tale.
There his lonely mother waits with the girl he left behind,
On their knees they ask in prayer why Fate's been so unkind;
There's a little box of pine on the Seven-twenty-nine,
Bringing back a lost sheep to the fold.
As the song appeared to come to an end, the fiddler played a few quick lively notes, and swung into an up-tempo restatement of the melody. Somehow, it didn’t seem as mournful as before. The vocalist picked up a banjo and joined the guitar. The fiddler slurred notes, added flourishes and decorated the simple tune almost beyond recognition. His fingers danced on the strings, arm working the bow with a manic virtuosity.
Heads nodded in time to the beat, limbs moved involuntarily.
Completely forgotten were the doleful lyrics of the original song; the strings no longer plaintive, but animated. Now only the energy of musicians playing in perfect synchrony mattered.
By some unspoken signal, the group found its way to a satisfying cadence. The music stopped.
Rick and Gus joined the enthusiastic applause from the small crowd gathered by the open stage, once one end of a huge old dairy barn, now converted into performance space.
“I’m amazed,” Rick said. “How does he play that fast?”
Gus just smiled. “He’s good.”
“But how does he get his fingers to move like that?”
“Practice. You get conditioned to the movement; at some point, it just becomes instinct. “
“No, really, you just begin to feel the patterns and spaces in the notes. They’re like old friends.”
“Is that what it’s like for you?”
Gus paused for a beat and his eyes crinkled. “You’ve never been to a concert of mine?”
“No, never.” Rick was glad he could answer truthfully.
“Maybe when this heals up.” Gus raised his cast. “Anyway, yeah, it’s like that for me. It’s really hard to describe. I mean, isn’t there something you do in your work that is so routine you don’t even have to think about it?”
“I’m a plumber. There’s some stuff I wish I didn’t have to think about, but no, there’s nothing I do that compares on that level.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Look at my work. It’s technical, sure, and a lot of it’s just awful. I’ve done the same kind of job over and over, but it’s not beautiful, not like what you do. Plumbing doesn’t move the soul.”
“Are you saying that’s what music does?”
“Yes.” Rick didn’t add that the musician sitting next to him moved his own soul even more.
“I could tell you I’ve played some pretty awful music in my day, and that I’ve played it badly.”
“I can’t believe that.”
Gus smiled. “It’s the truth. I had to do a pops concert last year in Cincinnati – the program was full of the most godawful arrangements. You know when you have to do something, but your heart isn’t in it? That’s when you make more mistakes than ever.”
“Boy, you aren’t kidding. I was on this job, unblocking a drain on a perfect summer day. I wanted to be out fishing, not working on some stinking sewer line. Nothing seemed to move the blockage; a whole morning wasted before I realized I would have to get a backhoe and dig up the line. You should have heard the cursing, knowing my whole day was shot. And then when I finally got the machine there, I was careless and whacked a utility pole; knocked out power to the whole neighborhood.”
“That must have made you popular.”
Rick grinned and shook his head. “Hardly. But the job got done and I apologized afterwards to everyone.”
Gus changed the subject. “You getting hungry?”
Rick craned his neck. “Where is the younger crowd?”
“Over there, in the shade.”
Joey, Marta and Jared sat in the narrow shadow of the barn, all that the noonday sun allowed.
“You don’t mind being in the sun?”
“No, I’m enjoying it.”
“I was thinking about some lunch, maybe.” Rick agreed.
Gus consulted a printed schedule of events they’d been handed when they entered the grounds. “There won’t be another group on any of the main stages for another forty-five minutes to an hour.”
“Does that sheet say where we get something to eat?”
“There’s some kind of food concession on the other side of the barn. That way. I think.”
Rick took a second look at the map and nodded in agreement.
They rose and collected Joey, Jared and Marta. Lunch sounded good to them. The party ambled toward the smells of grilling and deep frying.
“What do you think, Jared?” Gus inquired. “Was this a worthwhile trip?”
The lanky redhead nodded and glanced at the girl. “I’m having a great time.”
“I wonder what kind of violin that guy was playing,” the girl mused.
“Not a Strad, that’s for sure.” Gus said.
“And not an Amati like Helene plays.”
“Who’s Helene?” Jared asked.
“She and Gus are partners. They play together a lot – piano and violin sonatas, stuff like that.” Marta explained.
“But she also plays the …what, the Amati?”
“No, no, an Amati is a kind of violin. It’s the name of the makers, the Amati family in Cremona, Italy.” Gus put in.
“They don’t make them in the USA?”
Marta snorted and shoved the tall boy in the shoulder. “Doofus. They stopped making them in the 1700’s.”
“She plays something that old? Why doesn’t she use something newer?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Because the older the violin, the better it is. An Amati has a mellower and richer sound than anything modern. They’re insanely expensive.”
“Oh. Your partner must be some incredible violinist,” Jared said, turning to Gus.
“She’s very, um, polished. She presents well.”
Rick noted the diplomatic tone Gus took, but didn’t comment.
They watched several men in lederhosen going in the opposite direction, lugging accordions.
“You want to go hear them play?” Gus inquired.
“No, thanks. I can wait.” Rick laughed. “Oktoberfest is a long way off.”
“I can’t believe so many people just show up with their instruments to play for the fun of it.” Marta said.
“You should have brought your clarinet.” Gus teased.
“Very funny.” The girl made a sour face.
“No, really. Seems like this place is full of informal jam sessions. What have we heard since we got here? A Dixieland quintet by the entrance, that couple from Fort Collins playing viola da gambas, and then that bluegrass group on the back concert stage. Not your usual music festival, is it, Joey?”
“Nope. This is cool. I wanna see the bagpipes,” the boy stated.
“That’s what most people want. To see them, not hear them.”
“Where are they?” Jared asked.
Gus consulted the map. “There’s a place marked out for bagpipes. Ummmm, there.” His finger pointed to a spot some distance from the concert barn and main stages, across a wide field to where the forest began.
They neared the concession area, taking their place at the end of the line.
“What does everyone want?” Rick asked.
Marta and Jared peered over the heads of the people in front of them, trying to see what was offered.
“Can I have a hot dog?” Joey asked.
“Do they even have hot dogs?” Marta asked.
“This is Wisconsin,” Rick assured the younger boy. “There’s going to be some kind of hot dog or sausage.” He sniffed the air. “Probably dogs and brats; maybe even a corn dog. Ever had deep-fried cheese curds?”
“You trying to give the boy a heart attack?” Gus laughed.
“Hey, cheese curds are good,” Jared protested.
“Sounds guaranteed to stop up your arteries.”
“Good thing you’ve got a plumber handy to clear out the lines, right Rick?” The redhead teased.
Another knot of musicians walked by, these carrying violin and guitar cases.
Rick remembered a question. “What’s difference between a violin and a fiddle?”
“The only difference is in the size of the player’s head.” Gus quipped.
“Woo-hoo! Ouch!” Marta crowed. “Don’t let Helene hear you say that!”
“Well, it’s the same instrument. There’s no difference. What you call it depends on who’s playing it and for what audience. Though I’ve never heard of a fiddler playing an Amati or a Strad.”
“A Strad?” Jared and Rick both frowned in confusion.
“Another violin-making family in Italy: Stradivarius.” Marta informed them as the line inched forward.
“They should make them here, in this country.” Jared persisted.
“I think they do,” Gus said.
“What? Make Strads here?” Marta asked, incredulous.
“No, but I know there’s a really well-regarded luthier in Chicago. I’m trying to remember his name. Helene would know.”
“Luthier? What’s a luthier?” Jared asked.
“A luthier is a person who makes stringed instruments – violins, violas, cellos, guitars, mandolins – anything like that.”
“There are people who do that for a living?”
“Sure. They’re highly skilled craftsmen. I know a lot of their work is repair or reconditioning, but there are some who build new instruments. Most luthiers specialize in one type of thing – violins or guitars, for example.”
“Huh. Wow. Never even thought about that.”
They neared their opportunity to order. Rick reached into his pocket for his wallet, but he felt a hand on his wrist.
Gus leaned his head close and smiled. “No, don’t. This is my treat.”
Rick shivered at the touch, and his heart skipped a beat.
The fingers stayed for a moment on his skin. “You’ve been incredible just to spend your Saturday with us. Really, you have no idea how much I appreciate this.”
“Um, sure. Okay. Thanks.” Rick couldn’t help a grin of his own. For the first time in a long while, Rick felt as if he belonged.
The usual kinds of fair food were on offer. Joey got his hot dog, Marta and Jared ordered hamburgers, and Rick tempted Gus into getting local beer brats. Jared insisted on a couple of large orders of cheese curds, and Joey wanted fries.
They retreated to the shade of a tall basswood tree to eat and watch the festival crowd meander the grounds of the old farm.
Rick sat with his back to the rough bark; Gus reclined in front of him. Though all Rick could see was the hat on his head, Gus rested close enough that he could feel the heat of the man on his leg. He savored the moment as they ate in companionable silence. None of the men he’d crushed on over the years ever got this close, ever felt this natural. There’d been that younger man, the redhead who worked at Hoffman’s Feed and Ag Supply – they’d gone fishing, even. But though the sun shone and the water sparkled, tension between them filled the boat.
This experience was something on a different plane.
Behind him, on the other side of the trunk, Jared and Marta ate their burgers and talked in low tones. Every now and then he heard a silvery giggle. Marta had a pleasant laugh.
Alone in the group, Joey seemed restless. He wolfed down his hot dog and fries, then got up and wandered about, only to sit again. Occasionally, he strayed out of Rick’s field of vision, but he never seemed to venture too far out of the shade cast by the spreading tree.
“What do you want to hear next, Joey?” Gus called out to the boy.
“The bagpipes,” the boy replied promptly.
“And what about you two?” Gus’ hat fell to the ground as he turned and craned his neck to address the teens behind him.
“I don’t know. I’ll do whatever,” Rick heard Jared say as he retrieved the fallen headgear and dusted it off.
His gaze lingered on Gus: tousled black hair, warm eyes and grin made his heart flip.
“I wanted to see the exhibits and vendors,” Marta added.
“And what about you, Rick?” Gus turned a bright smile on him.
“I’m …I’m um, you know …good with whatever you want,” he stammered.
“There’s a Celtic group going on at one o’clock. I think I want to hear that.”
“Fine by me.”
“Mr. Ernst – Rick?”
“What’s up, Jared?”
“Maybe Marta and I can go to the bagpipe place with Joey. You can go to that other thing, and then we’ll come back later and meet up at the vendor area.”
“You sure?” Gus asked, eyebrow raised.
“Yeah. No problem. I’ve got Rick’s cell number; I’ll call if we miss you when we get back.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Rick agreed, the corners of his mouth rising.
Later, Rick and Gus walked to the far end of the concert barn to hear the Celtic band perform. The crowd at this stage was larger than for the bluegrass players, but the number of festival goers seemed to have swelled since noon.
“You think the kids will be okay?” Gus asked, a trace of worry in his voice.
“I think so. Jared’s pretty laid back, but he’s smart enough to keep Joey and Marta from going at it,” Rick replied as they seated themselves on the grass in the middle of the crowd.
As they were speaking, an ensemble of eight or ten, carrying various vaguely familiar looking instruments made their way onto the stage. A pair of bearded, middle aged men stepped forward, carrying a kind of shallow drum, maybe a foot and a half in diameter. They held these with the drum head perpendicular to the ground, which Rick thought kind of odd. The players commenced beating a complex rhythm on their instruments, even as the rest of their company gathered up pipes, guitars, and violins.
The insistent tattoo stirred the crowd, brought them to attention. The duo played in perfect unity; Rick watched in amazement.
Another member of the company joined them, with something which resembled a fireplace bellows under his arm and handful of sticks in his hands. From this emanated a nasal, reedy drone, but this was overlaid by an intricate quick-tempo tune matched to the beat of the drums. As they repeated the basic tune, these were joined by a tall man in a red plaid shirt and a shorter woman with long flowing blond tresses, each of whom raised a flute to add to the music. Their softer tones seemed to mellow the pipes, making the texture of the sound richer.
To these were soon added a pair of fiddlers, who matched the melody of the pipes while subtly quickening the pace. Already, the onlookers moved to the unrelenting pulse of the music. A few people began clapping in time, others joined in.
Quite suddenly, only the fiddles carried the tune, every other player on the stage having fallen silent. The clapping died away. Was Rick imagining it, or did the two performers nudge each other into ever faster, ever wilder repetitions of the melody? Together, they showed off their virtuosity even as they appeared to challenge one another on the stage.
Rick glanced to his right, at Gus. He watched the performers, intent and bright-eyed. Rick felt something moving. Gus beat time on the grass with his left foot, and his calf brushed against Rick’s.
A few beats later, the remaining instruments rejoined the fiddlers, keeping up with the new pace, filling the air with joyous, untamed music. Rick raised his hands to join the rest of the audience as the clapping started again. He felt his shoulder rub against Gus. He reveled in the contact.
When the music finally ended, the two of them joined the enthusiastic cheering.
Gus turned to Rick with a wide grin. “Worth the trip?” He had to raise his voice to be heard.
‘Want to hear more?”
“You bet,” Rick nodded with a matching smile.
The concert, initially scheduled to last about an hour, ran over the allotted time, much to the delight of the crowd. Rick felt exhilarated twice over. The music had been like nothing he’d ever heard; and the closeness and ease he experienced with Gus was unlike anything he’d ever felt. For once, he wasn’t on the outside looking in.
“Where to now?” The two of them rose, working out the soreness in his back and hips from sitting on the ground for so long.
“I’m not sure. Maybe – oh damn, where are the kids?” Gus asked.
“Let me check my phone.” Rick dug in his pocket. “They can’t have gotten into too much trouble.”
“You don’t know Joey.”
“Hmm. I don’t see any messages. Let me call.” Rick stood still, waiting in vain for Jared to pick up at the other end.
“We should have kept them with us.”
“They’re fine. Probably just walking around, like they said they would.” Rick sounded more confident than he felt. He pocketed his phone.
The pair of them scanned the crowd, watching the audience disperse.
“I guess we could just wander ourselves, and hope to run into them,” said Gus.
“I like that idea.”
Rick shrugged and pointed off to his right. “Oh, why not that way? Maybe we can find a jam session in the shade. I’m getting hot.”
Gus said something under his breath; Rick couldn’t quite catch it.
“Nothing,” the dark-skinned man said with a smirk. “Let’s go.”
They strolled up a slight incline toward what might have been the main farmhouse.
“I wonder who organizes this, and how it all got started?” Rick mused.
Gus examined the flyer with the map and event schedule they’d received when they entered. “It says here the festival was started by a high school music teacher from Milwaukee. He inherited the farm and invited his friends for a big weekend improv session. Their friends brought friends, who brought more friends, and a festival was born.”
“We ought to thank him.”
“We can’t. According to this, the man passed away a few years ago, leaving a committee to stage things. Left everything to a foundation to keep it going.”
Rick glanced over at Gus, whose eyes regarded him for an extra beat before looking away. “I guess they’re doing okay.”
“I think you’re right.”
A woman approached, headed in the opposite direction, shepherding a couple of small children. “Well, hello Rick! Nice to see you.”
For a split second, Rick thought it was Rita’s voice.
“Hiya, Leda. How’s Len doing?”
“Great. He’s going to be home by Friday.” The woman smiled and extended a hand to Gus. “I’m Leda Weckenmann.”
“Gustavo Morales. Nice meeting you. Your husband is away?”
“Yes, in the Air Force Reserves. But his unit is being sent home this week.”
“I can’t wait. You’re not from Eagle Lake?”
Gus laughed. “No, I’m just visiting for a few weeks. Rick is a friend of mine, and we decided to come and hear the music.”
The corners of Rick’s mouth ticked up. Rick is a friend of mine.
Leda brushed a stray lock of hair out of her face. “It’s great isn’t it? I came last year and had a great time. Anyway, I’m surprised to see you here, Rick. I didn’t know you liked music.”
“I thought it was time to expand my horizons.” Rick smirked.
“Well, good. I tried to get Len to come last year, but that wasn’t happening. My children seem to enjoy it, though.”
“Are those yours?” Gus pointed to a boy and a girl a little distance away.
“Yes. I guess I’d better catch up to them. Nice seeing you Rick, and it’s good to meet you Mr., um –”
“Morales. Gustavo Morales. Call me Gus.”
“Good to meet you, Gus. See you later.” She hastened after her children.
Gus turned to Rick with a look of wonder. “Do you know everyone in the State of Wisconsin?”
“No. Just seems that way sometimes.” Rick reddened.
“You’re a celebrity.”
“I get to see the insides of a lot of houses around Eagle Lake. They have problems, I fix them, that’s all.”
“And you listen to your customers.”
“It’s only polite to take an interest when someone talks to you.”
They reached the farmhouse. A deeply tanned trio in white shirts and dark pants stood at the center of an appreciative group, playing guitars and a violin. The sound was distinctly Latin.
“Ahh. Mexico.” Gus sighed.
“This is a kind of Mexican folk music they’re playing.”
They listened for a while; one of the guitarists broke into song, his voice in a high register.
Como gota de rocío
En el caliz de una flor
Te contempla el amor mío
Ay la la lai la la la
Gus put his hand on Rick’s arm and whispered. “This style is called Son Huasteco. He’s singing about his love, like the dewdrop on a flower.”
“Oh. I see.I guess I kind of expected, trumpets or something.”
That earned Rick a snort from his companion. “Not everything is Mariachi, just like not all German music is oom-pah or yodeling.”
“I guess I’m ignorant.”
“How much music from Central America do you get up here? Not much, right?”
Rick pulled a wry face. “That’s true enough.”
“So don’t worry.”
The song came to an end with a flourish, followed by appreciative applause.
Rick scanned the area where they stood. “I don’t see Marta or Jared or Joey anywhere here.”
“Wasn’t the bagpipe place over that way?” Gus gestured around the other side of the house.
“No, I think it might have been beyond the barn, over there.” Rick pointed in the opposite direction.
“Oh, right. I get turned around so easily.”
They headed back down the gentle slope.
They passed an ad hoc gathering of polka players; a clarinet, a sax, and a couple of accordions. They didn’t stop to listen for long. On the far side of an old silo, they found a couple of youngsters, kids in their teens, sawing away at fiddles. No one cared if they weren’t professionals, they were having fun. A little further on, a hand lettered sign indicated a path through the high grass. Bagpipes. This Way.
“You game?” Rick asked.
They set out down the narrow track. Rick noticed as they strolled that Gus kept his good left arm next to his. Was it coincidence that they seemed to continually touch arms or hands or shoulders? Coincidence or not, he enjoyed the man’s nearness and the familiarity.
Perhaps the ease between them led him to blurt out something that had been on his mind. “Who exactly is Helene?”
Gus shot him a quizzical glance. “What do you mean?”
“She’s the one who gave you that cast, right? And she’s your, um, partner?”
“I’m her accompanist.”
“Which means …?”
“We perform together.”
“So you’re not …?” Rick couldn’t even finish the question. He began to feel warmer than the heat of the sun on his neck.
Gus snorted and made a sour face. “God, no. What, did you think we were involved somehow?”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to get too personal.”
“That’s all right. You’re not the first person to ask me that. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of question Zoltan and Magda have been encouraging people to ask.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s all part of the image, presenting a musical couple to the world. It sells concert tickets in some places. A lot of them.” Gus sounded annoyed.
“So you’re not an item.”
“Not at all.There isn’t time for a relationship. I’m either practicing, preparing for appearances, getting ready for master classes, or performing. Who has time to actually get to know someone? Not anyone working with the Takács tyrants.”
Gus held up his cast. “Until this happened, I hadn’t had much of a break since I was eleven years old. This is the first real vacation I’ve ever had. And I’m enjoying every minute of it,” he added with a grin.
“Wait, you’ve been playing piano since you were eleven?”
“No, I’ve been on concert tours of some kind since then, at least when I wasn’t in school.”
Rick frowned. “And before that?”
“Oh, I was with master teachers and in special schools all year round. Zoltan and Magda kept me at it.”
“Hold on. What about your parents? They agreed to this?”
Gus shook his head. “It was just me and my mother. We were …migrants, living in Texas. She was the struggling single mother, I was the seven-year-old prodigy.Mother found a job as a custodian at Texas State in San Marcos. Zoltan discovered me playing a concert grand on an empty stage there.”
“What do you think? Zoltan impressed my mother with his professionalism and intensity. He convinced her to let him take charge of my education and my career.”
“She just let you go?” Rick shook his head.
“I don’t blame her for it – she knew Zoltan would do for me what she couldn’t possibly do. She knew I had this ability to play piano. Back in Guatemala – that’s where I was born – the sisters at the mission school let me play on this old upright they had. I was four, and they had to pile up books on the piano bench so I could reach.”
“You were four years old and playing the piano?”
Gus nodded. “Sister Felicity took me under her wing and taught me what she knew. I learned to read music out of First Marian Songs for Children and an old hymnal; I could play the whole book after a year.”
“That’s amazing. And you learned all that in elementary school? I don’t think I learned much more than the song about the Erie Canal when I was a kid.”
The shorter man was silent for a few moments. Crickets sang their summer songs in the field. “I don’t remember a lot. Sister Felicity was trying to convince my mother and father to take me to Guatemala City. She knew someone at a university.”
“But they weren’t convinced.”
“They didn’t get the chance.”
“It isn’t something …” Gus looked away for a moment. Turning back to Rick, he took a deep breath. “Can we talk about something else?”
“I’m sorry. Please, I didn’t mean to bring up a painful subject.”
“I know it wasn’t intentional.” The dark-skinned man managed a brittle smile. He gestured with his head. “I think we found the place.”
The path in the grass widened, and they reached a knot of people gathered at the edge of the woods, under the deep green shade of poplars and birches. A ripple of laughter sounded.
“That’s all right, don’t pay them any attention,” Rick heard a tall auburn-bearded man say. “Give it another go.”
He and Gus made their way to the circle of onlookers.
The speaker filled out a blue button-down shirt nicely and wore a green and blue tartan kilt exposing well-muscled calves. “Go on, lad.”
There, at the center of attention, stood Joey, gamely trying to manage a set of pipes while filling the bag through the blowpipe. The boy blew hard, a picture of intense, red-faced concentration. A low moan escaped from the pipes; next, a burst of sound like the gabble of startled geese, and after that, one long, nasal note pierced the air. The sound gave out suddenly, as Joey gasped for breath. Delighted, the crowd burst into cheers and applause.
“That’s it! Well done! We’ll make a piper of you yet, boy,” the bearded one enthused, slapping Joey on the back.
Recovering, the boy beamed and handed the pipes back to their owner. He spotted Rick and Gus by his side.“Hey, Uncle Gus! Did you see me playing the bagpipes?”
“Yes, we saw.”
“It’s awesome! I can’t believe they let me try.”
Gus smirked. “Me neither.”
“Where’d Marty and Jared go?” The boy’s eyes searched for the teens.
“Don’t you know?”
“They were here before.”
Rick’s heart sank. Had they left Joey completely on his own? A dozen scenarios leapt into his head.
Marta and Jared had strayed into one of the old buildings and something had collapsed. They’d been enticed by strangers into their car and were now tied up in the back of someone’s trunk. Marta had fallen ill as a result of a food allergy she’d neglected to mention, and an emergency helicopter flight was on its way from Green Bay, and he was supposed to be the responsible one.
He tried to keep his voice level. Gus already wore a stricken sort of look.
“Guess we’d better look for them.”
A quick examination of the bagpipe gathering confirmed Marta and Jared’s absence. It also revealed a slender trail leading into the woods. Rick paused and considered.
“Come on, I bet they went this way,” he gestured, leading.
The track led into a cool green world of old second growth hardwoods and conifers. It wound around larger oaks and beeches, trending gently downhill. The sounds of bagpipes faded, muffled by leaves and undergrowth.
“They’re not lost, are they?” Gus asked, worried.
“I doubt it. Probably just exploring.” He did his best to sound confident. “They’re fine. Jared has a good head on his shoulders. We’ll catch up to them.”
They pressed on.
“Joey, keep up. I don’t want to go searching for you, too.” Rick heard Gus chide the boy, who must have found something fascinating along the path to investigate.
Twigs snapped under three pairs of feet. Somewhere high above in the branches, a bird sang in a rich avian soprano. The trail took a sharp turn to the left and sloped away. Rick halted.
Perhaps fifty feet away, Jared and Marta sat quite close on the mossy trunk of a fallen tree, overlooking a placid, slow moving stream. A hint of sun glinting on the water reached Rick’s eyes. The girl leaned her head on the lanky boy’s shoulder. The redhead bent down; they kissed.
“Well. We found them, anyway.” Gus whispered.
Joey shouldered his way between the two adults who blocked the path and ran forward. “Hey, Marty! Jared!” He called, full of excitement. “I got to play the bagpipes!”
Rick and Gus followed after the boy.
The teens startled and pulled apart. Marta, turning, glared at her younger sibling, but Jared recovered without missing a beat. “Hey, Jo. How was it?”
“Awesome! You should have seen it!”
“Glad you got your chance.”
“There you are. We finally caught up to you,” Rick said, coming up to the log.
“Um, yeah. We found this really neat, quiet spot.”
Gus pulled a wry face. “Away from the crowds and everything.”
The redhead had the grace to blush.
Rick’s thoughts were mixed. He was annoyed at Jared and Marta for leaving Joey on his own so they could pursue their own interests, but he also felt some understanding. He wished he could have brought Gus to this spot instead. The fantasy of being that close – of even kissing Gus – almost made him dizzy.
Nah. You’re way too much of a coward for that.
“We went to the bagpipe area, and found Joey, but didn’t see you.” Rick stated, keeping his voice steady.
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry, Mr. Ernst. I kinda lost track of time.”
Rick suppressed a derisive laugh. “I can see that.”
“We were worried.” Gus put in.
“Uncle Gus, we weren’t doing anything.” Marta’s defensive tone was unmistakable.
“It’s not what you were doing, it’s that we didn’t know where you were – and Joey was left on his own.” Rick said calmly.
“You missed it,” said Joey. “They let me play the pipes.”
“Sorry, Jo. Was it good?”
“It was awesome! I want a set. Do you think Mom and Dad will get me some bagpipes?”
“I doubt it.” Marta shook her head. “Not the kind of thing they have planned for us, is it?”
Not wanting to allow a budding argument to blossom, Gus intervened. “Why don’t we head back to the festival area? There’s still a couple of concert stages going.”
Jared glanced at Marta, who nodded. “Okay, sure.”
The group moved off along the path, with the teens in the lead, followed by Joey and then Gus and Rick.
Not long after, the boy stopped and turned to Gus with a serious expression. “I think Marty and Jared are up to no good.”
The boy nodded. “Look.” He pointed at the couple, some distance ahead on the path. “They’re holding hands.”
Jared and Marta remained inseparable through the remainder of the waning afternoon. As their little band wandered through the vendor’s area behind the big performance barn, Rick couldn’t help noting how close and easy their interaction was. He felt a twinge of jealousy.
The area was a riot of accessories, necessities, and musical kitsch. Anyone with a remote connection to any kind of acoustic music seemed to be on hand to offer their wares.
Rick and Gus stopped at a stall offering a device unknown to Rick, made in custom woods and finishes. “You need one of these, Gus?”
“I’ve got three at home, plus an app on my phone.” Gus laughed. “These are showpieces.”
“What are they?”
“They’re old-fashioned metronomes,” Gus replied. “A kind of mechanical timer that helps a musician keep the right beat and tempo.”
Rick picked up one of the display models and glanced at the price tag. “Is three hundred dollars too pricey for one of these?”
“What? Let me see that.”
Rick made to hand over the item, but it somehow slipped in his hands.
Reacting quickly, Gus managed to catch it before it fell. The fingers protruding from his cast brushed Rick’s wrist.
“Sorry. You okay?” Rick asked as he experienced an involuntary shiver. He remembered fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“Fine. Wow. The weight is impressive.” Gus hefted the metronome in his good hand, admiring the high degree of finish.
The pianist turned to the vendor, who eyed the pair of them. “What is the wood this is made of?”
“That’s made of pudding mahogany.” The man at the booth sported a grey beard that would have allowed him to sell cough drops.“See that kind of swirl pattern in the wood? That’s how it gets the name.”
“It’s lovely. Where does the wood come from?”
“Can’t get that stuff anymore. All that kind of wood was clearcut and used up decades ago. I found this piece at a salvage place in Chicago. It was part of an old dresser someone had beaten on and chucked out. Can’t believe someone would do that to wood so nice.” The vendor wagged his head in apparent sympathy with the erstwhile piece of furniture.
Gus set it back on the table with greater care than Rick had used in picking it up. “I’ve got a couple of digital ones at home, but nothing like this. It’s beautiful.”
“Thanks.” The maker nodded. “One of a kind, these. Nothing like ‘em anywhere.”
“Not that I’ve seen,” the pianist agreed.
“Uncle Gus! Come quick!” A breathless Joey appeared suddenly.
“What’s the matter? Is there a problem?”
“You’ve gotta see this!”
“What is it?”
The boy grabbed Gus by the hand and pulled him away. Rick followed in their wake, as they made their way through the slow-moving stream of browsers in the vendor’s area.
A few more steps and they broke clear of the crowd. Joey led them across the grass to yet another informal knot of musicians. The place seemed to be full of folk players of all kinds, coalescing to play together for a time, then moving on.
“This is so cool,” the boy said over his shoulder.
Rick noted Jared and Marta amongst the onlookers; the girl wore an intent look on her face.
The focus of the attention was a duo, men in their late twenties, each playing an instrument like nothing Rick had ever seen. At first glance, he thought it might be a violin; both players held bows playing on the strings of their instruments. But the bows were much shorter than they should have been, and what they played on was longer and thinner than a fiddle, too. Odder still, whatever it was they played hung by straps over their shoulders. But the strangest thing was that the musician’s fingers played not on the strings themselves, but on a series of keys or levers attached to the upper part of the wooden body of the instrument.
“What are those?” Rick whispered to Gus.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one.”
The players wound their way through what sounded like a folk tune.
“Sounds a little different from a violin.” The shorter man commented. “Maybe a little less nasal.”
Rick raised an eyebrow.
“You know, a different quality, like a choirboy sounds different from a trained soprano.”
“Okay. I guess I can hear that.”
The song came to an end to the applause of those gathered around.
“What is that you’re playing?” Marta was the first to raise her voice.
“This is a nyckelharpa.” The member of the duo wearing dark-rimmed glasses and blond curls replied with a smile. “It’s a Nordic folk instrument. Sometimes it’s called a keyed fiddle.” He must have gotten the question frequently.
“Where did you get yours?”
“This one was made in Sweden.”
“You play Scandinavian folk music?” Gus asked.
The player glanced at his partner and grinned. “Not exclusively.” Without preamble, he counted four beats and the pair commenced on another piece.
In a couple of seconds, it became obvious they were playing something classical. A confident melody tumbled out of one instrument, only to be answered by the other. First one player had the tune, then the next moment it was restated by his partner in a higher register, followed by a passage in which both played in glorious harmony. It was as if the music told a story followed by laughter and joy which only the players fully understood.
Rick marveled as fingers quickly worked the keys of the nyckelharpas. He noticed Gus smile, and his right hand twitching.
The tone changed, and though the basic melody returned, it did so with seriousness, setting aside all humor. But this lasted only long enough so that the original tune brought bright relief when it returned, as the sun coming out after a rain shower.As quickly as it began, it was over.
“You know this tune?” Rick asked.
“Bach, Invention Number 8,” Gus replied. “I’ve known it since I was ten, eleven, maybe.”
“Wait, you can play it on the piano?”
“It was written for the keyboard.” Gus smiled, and turned to the duo. “Where did you get your transcription?”
The bespectacled man grinned sheepishly. “We did it ourselves.”
“That’s great. I really liked your sound.”
“You’ve played this piece before?”
“Yes, many times.”
The nyckelharpist came closer, wearing a warm smile. “I know you’re kind of hampered by that cast, but you want to try?”
“Um, I’m not sure I can manage the bow, and …”
“Here, let me help.” The blond fellow was already unshouldering the instrument. “It’s not that delicate,” he added as he showed Gus how to thread his arms through the straps. “The bow weighs almost nothing. Your fingers can handle it.”
Gus took the stubby bow in the fingers extending from the cast on his right arm.
The folk musician now stood close behind the pianist, taking the darker skinned man’s left hand to show his new pupil basic technique.
Rick frowned and shifted his stance. He wasn’t sure he liked how near the other man was to Gus.
“Now, your left hand plays the keys from underneath as you bow. If you play the top string, it’s A.”
Gus nodded. “I could tell.”
“Right. Press this key; that’s B. The next one is D.Then E.”
Rick coughed. Something must have tickled in his throat.
The folk musician stepped back a pace, but hovered nearby.
Gus bowed the top string experimentally. After a scratchy start, a pleasant note emerged. He tried a few more times, pressing in different keys, producing a rough scale.
“Awesome. You’re a natural.”
Gus played the scale again, a little more smoothly. He furrowed his brow, focused on the keys and bow. Moving deliberately, he produced a somber, sedate tune. It wasn’t accomplished, but it was recognizable as a piece of music.
He came to an end, followed by a patter of polite applause. Gus unslung the nyckelharpa with care and returned the instrument to its owner. “Thank you. That was interesting.”
“Hey, can I try, too?” Joey called out.
The second nyckelharpist, taller and more silent, smirked. “Yours too?” he asked.
Gus looked over at Rick, their eyes meeting. He smiled wide. “We’re all together.”
I thank @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday for their help in making this story better and suggesting many improvements. If you have thoughts, reflections or comments on today's music festival, please share them. I enjoy reading everyone's reactions. If you want to hear a small sample of what Gus and Rick might have heard, you can try these links: